University of Alabama

Commentary: Tide survives Vols scare to remain undefeated

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.

Cory Reamer is a linebacker, not a historian. But Reamer’s assessment of the significance of Alabama teammate Terrence Cody’s second blocked field goal Saturday against Tennessee was every bit as accurate as Leigh Tiffin’s four field goals.

“A play like that,” Reamer said, “will go down in history as one of the great plays. To beat Tennessee on a last-second block.”

At a minimum, Cody’s block on the game’s last play preserved a 12-10 victory over Tennessee and, in the process, the Crimson Tide’s perfect record through eight games. Quite possibly, though, it will be looked back on as the play that made another national championship possible.

An ugly win? You could say that. In fact, Alabama coach Nick Saban pretty much did so himself. The Tide won despite failing to score a touchdown. They allowed an anemic Tennessee offense to post more first downs (20-16) and total offense (341 yards to 256) and hold the ball for nearly 21 minutes in the second half.

Yet, Saban’s critique was not limited to the statistics. Rather, Saban was more upset by the fact that Alabama was pretty much in control and almost blew it. The Tide led 12-3 with less than four minutes left to play and, thanks to a roughing the punter penalty on Tennessee, had the ball. At worst, they could have run three plays, forced the Volunteers to burn their three timeouts, punted the ball and put the Vols in a spot where they had to drive the length of the field with no timeouts and having to score twice. A couple of first downs — maybe even just one — would have iced it.

Instead, Mark Ingram, Alabama’s most reliable offensive player, fumbled and Tennessee recovered at the Bama 43.

“That’s how fragile a season can be,” said Saban, whose mood swung back and forth between perturbed and relieved. “Make one mistake, and you have to go overcome it, and I hope there’s a lot of lessons for our team to learn from this. I think our focus needs to be on improving.”

Saban was also upset that the Volunteers’ offense seemed to take the fight to Bama. Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton completed only three more passes (21 to 18) than did Bama’s Greg McElroy. But his yards per attempt was 7.2, nearly double McElroy’s 4.1.

“We can’t be so risk aversive,” Saban said. “We just have to be more aggressive in what we’re doing on offense right now because they’re loading the box. We can’t block them all.”

Fortunately for Alabama, no one can block Cody. He is 6-foot-5 and 354 pounds of sheer determination. Cody had a relatively quiet day on defense. But the work of a nose guard often goes unnoticed except by the poor soul who has to block him all day. But Cody made up for it on special teams. He already blocked one Daniel Lincoln attempt that would have pulled the Vols to within three points early in the fourth quarter.

Surely the Vols had to remember this when they lined up at the 28-yard line with four seconds left to play. Undoubtedly, it didn’t matter. This was not the work of extra special teams film sessions and scheming some trickery for the moment. It was, in football jargon, “max block.” Two players crash up the middle and one player — in this case, Julio Jones — leaps high to try to block the kick.

The thing is, the play is designed for the guy in the back to make the big play. Cody didn’t need any help. He just beat the man in front of him, stuck his left arm up and swatted the ball backward.

“I just closed my eyes and reached out,” Cody said. “I was thinking the whole time, ‘It’s game time. Just have to dig down deep.’ And I told myself I was going to block it.”

As Saban said, “Great teams have great players that can make great plays in critical situations in the game.”

Undoubtedly, some voters will see this as a flawed win over a mediocre Tennessee team. More astute voters know that style points are meaningless in comparison to week-to-week survival in the SEC. Bama might just keep winning all the way to the national championship game.

Guerry Clegg, gclegg@ledger-enquirer.com

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